Author Archives: Rabbi Fred Dobb

Rabbi Fred Dobb

About Rabbi Fred Dobb

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, serves on the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shalom Center, Religious Witness for the Earth, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.

Contemporary Jews and Halakhah

Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), poet laureate of the Hebrew renaissance, studied in yeshivot (traditional Jewish academies) as a child and young adult. An accomplished writer who moved easily in the secular Tel Aviv society of the early twentieth century, he never left Judaism’s classical texts far behind. He managed to rebuke both secular and religious Jews in his 1917 essay, “Halakhah and Aggadah,” which brilliantly links the two: halakhah, literally meaning “the way,” or “the going,” but usually used to refer to Jewish law; and aggadah, “telling”: stories, ideas, philosophy, legend, and all other non-legal strands of Jewish thought and literature. 

Bialik initially presents them in opposition to one another, calling halakhah “severe, strict, hard like steel” and aggadah “compliant, merciful, softer than oil.” But quickly he shows this to be a false dichotomy. The two are like flower and fruit, water and ice, thoughts and words; they are “different phases of the same larger entity: Living and creative halakhah is aggadah of the past or future, and vice versa.”  Bialik laments the “permissive Judaism” that downplays halakhah and minimizes obligations, even as he rejects a verbatim reading of the Shulhan Arukh (the late 16th century legal code that became uniquely authoritative).

jewish law todayBialik still speaks directly to the Jewish world nearly a century later. All but the most ardent secularists agree that halakhah is part of the creative record bequeathed by past generations as a resource, however binding or non-binding we understand it to be. And all but the most insular haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) agree that halakhah admits change, whatever its pace.

Yet views of Jewish law often remain polarized according to Jews’ different denominational affiliation, backgrounds, and assumptions. Like Bialik, today’s literature about the nature of halakhah and its proper role bids us to clarify where we stand, see the validity in other approaches, and challenge our own expectations. 

Living an Environmentally Conscious Jewish Life

The created world is both bountiful and fragile. A Jewish environmental activist suggests that treating it with respect and care should be an integral part of our living out the Jewish concepts of Torah (instruction/learning), avodah (service/worship/work), and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness).

“O child of Adam, when you return to Nature, on that day you shall open your eyes… You shall know that you have returned to yourself, for in hiding from Nature, you hid from yourself… And you will recognize on that day…you must renew everything: your food and your drink, your dress and your home, the character of your work and the way that you learn — everything.”natural field

So wrote Aaron David Gordon, the pioneer-philosopher of Labor Zionism, at the dawn of the kibbutz movement in 1910.  A century later, with species disappearing and pollution rising and the globe warming, it’s time to do what Gordon said, in ways he could not have imagined, and indeed “renew everything.” We must bring our entire being to the sacred work of Creation care — and in so doing Jews are blessed with millennia of thought and experience to draw upon.


The Jewish tradition offers myriad opportunities for uttering a formulaic blessing. We’ve got blessings for seeing heads of state, Torah scholars, and ugly people. Blessings over sunsets, meteors, rainbows, reunions, and bad news. Blessings for bread and baked goods and fruit and vegetables, all different. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir suggests reciting 100 blessings each day (Menachot 43b) — one every ten minutes of our waking lives. In other words, Jews should be constantly aware of the world around us, and should respond through gratitude and prayer.

But it doesn’t stop there. Among the things to be aware of is our interdependence, that “one glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, [which] unites all living beings” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century Germany, Nineteen Letters, 4). And once we are aware of the bounty and fragility of Creation, we naturally become committed to protecting it, and making sure that others — other people, other creatures, other generations — get to enjoy its fragile bounty as well.